Afghan Charged in 2001 Journalist Slayings

Authorities have charged a man in the 2001 killings of four foreign journalists who were pulled from their vehicles and shot as they rushed to the Afghan capital after the collapse of the Taliban (search), a prosecutor said Thursday.

Reza Khan (search) faces trial in the slaying of one victim and the rape of another — crimes he confessed to in an interview broadcast this week on state television.

The journalists were traveling in a convoy from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad to Kabul (search) when a group of armed men dragged them from their cars and shot them dead on Nov. 19, 2001.

Those killed were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of the Reuters new agency; Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera; and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo.

Gen. Abdul Fatah, a prosecutor for the Afghan intelligence service, said Khan told interrogators the killings were ordered by "a Taliban guy." But in his televised confession, Khan suggested the motive was theft.

Khan, a bearded man in his early 30s dressed in a baggy shirt and flat woolen cap, looked pained as he quietly answered about a dozen questions in the videotape, which was broadcast Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained a copy of it Thursday.

Part of the recording showed his feet chained together; it was unclear where or when the video was made.

Khan said he'd gone with a local commander, Zar Jan, who'd been released from a Taliban jail, to rob passing motorists. Khan said the journalists were in the third and fourth vehicles they stopped that morning.

After searching the reporters, "Zar Jan ordered us to shoot them," Khan said. "He was our commander. If we didn't kill them, maybe he would have killed me."

Khan said he personally shot one of the foreigners but did not know which.

He also said he took Cutuli to a rocky area just off the road and raped her, and that afterward, another man, Mohammed Agha, killed her. He said Agha and Jan are now on the run together.

"It was a thing that I did and I regret it," Khan said of the rape. "I hope that God will forgive me."

Khan said he was paid about a month later, and that Jan then recruited him to help set up a roadblock where Jan cut off the ears and noses of four people in two cars.

"I think that the Taliban ordered him to cut the ears and nose off," Khan said. "He asked them why they had cut their beard" — one of the many acts prohibited under the Taliban.

Khan said he had been a member of Hezb-e Islami, a radical Islamic party; many of its members joined the Taliban. He said Jan had been imprisoned by the Taliban until shortly before the killings of the journalists.

Afghan intelligence officials announced in April last year that four people had been arrested over the killings and that two had confessed, but gave no details. State media reported at the time that Al Qaeda and Taliban rebels fleeing south after the fall of Kabul were suspected.

The prosecutor said Khan was arrested earlier this year trying to cross into Pakistan; he was detained based on evidence provided by a man already sentenced to 16 years in jail.

He said Khan will appear in court soon for a closed-door trial, and that he could be hanged if found guilty. The highway robbery charge alone carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. It was unclear if Khan will have access to a lawyer.